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50 Essential Etiquette Lessons Summary

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

Etiquette Lessons Book Mockup

50 Etiquette Lessons is an essential starting point for those leaving school for the adult world or those who’ve had more than their share of etiquette faux pas. It starts with why etiquette matters, before covering etiquette in the office, digital communication, dining out, dating and socializing, and celebrations. Key insights:

  1. Etiquette matters – be respectful and considerate of others

  2. Learn how to make a great first impression – it matters more than you think

  3. Success in the office means being on time, prepared, avoiding gossip, and not treating your boss like a BFF

  4. Meetings are an opportunity to shine, prepare by reading materials and planning your responses, then be an active, respectful participant. And stay off your phone or better still leave it behind

  5. Be concise and structured in your written and verbal communication – less is more

  6. Learn table manners – it matters more than you think (eat with your mouth closed please)

  7. Plan a few opening lines when mingling or networking – a little goes a long way

  8. If dating coworkers – progress slowly, check company policies, don’t gossip, and avoid the boss

  9. Use thank you notes for special occasions – it matters more than you think

  10. When dealing with breakups note you don’t have to take sides or offer solutions, and don’t gossip

Book details

Full title: 50 Essential Etiquette Lessons: How to Eat Lunch with Your Boss, Handle Happy Hour Like a Pro, and Write a Thank You Note in the Age of Texting and Tweeting. By Katherine Flannery.

Length: 178 pages, or 3 hours and 5 minutes on Audible

Buy the book (USA): Amazon (book, Kindle, Audible)

Buy the book (AUS): Amazon (book, Kindle, Audible), Booktopia (book)

Key insight 1: Etiquette matters - be respectful and considerate of others

We instinctively know that etiquette matters, even if we don’t want to comply. But why? Here’s Flannery:

“Etiquette matters because how you present yourself to the world matters. It matters at work, it matters to your family, and it matters to your friends. It even matters to perfect strangers. If you master the basics of etiquette, you’ll come across as an on-point, put-together, confident person who knows a thing or two about the world – and that will help you shine in all aspects of your life.”

Etiquette has come a long way from the last century which dictated what unmarried women could or couldn’t do. In the past it constrained what you could do; now the best way to think of etiquette as a guide on how to act to come across as awesome to anyone. This change from etiquette as social constraint to social lubricant has made it easier to understand as there is really only one basic premise involved – be respectful and considerate of others. Flannery again:

“That’s not to say that following the guidelines of etiquette will turn you into some complacent droid who just regurgitates the right phrase for any given input. Knowing good etiquette is more like always knowing what the best version of yourself would do in any situation, instead of fumbling around as if you were raised by wolves, trying to figure out what to say and do. Etiquette should make your life better and easier, not harder.”

Etiquette offers a fast track at work. It can help you get hired, promoted, and selected to represent the company at events as ‘management’ know that you will take it seriously and reflect well on the department or company. Flannery notes that ‘good etiquette is good business’.

Outside the office, etiquette offers a pathway to navigate complex and changing social interactions. It takes the mystery out of creating invitations, RSVP-ing, picking gifts for special occasions, splitting bills, or making a great impression on first dates. So here’s some tips from Flannery on being respectful and considerate:

Use someone’s name in conversation.

  • Pay attention (get off your phone), don’t fidget or look around/away.

  • If you need to leave, excuse yourself with “It was great speaking with you. Please excuse me.”

  • Don’t overshare.

  • Don’t touch unless it is a norm for your urban tribe (i.e. not casual or formal acquaintances).

  • Always use ‘please’ when asking for something.

  • Always say ‘thank you’ when someone does something for you.

  • Finish with a good-bye appropriate to the formality level.

Key insight 2: Making a great first impression

First impressions matter – they always have. When you meet someone new you want them to remember you for the right reasons. Things like your easy and engaging conversation, and being present in the moment. You don’t want to be remembered as an awkward, mumbling fool that struggled to make eye contact.

1. Initial contact. Flannery says when meeting people you should stand up, sitting down implies they are not worth your energy to stand. Keep the arms by your side and hands out of your pockets. Don’t over-think the handshake; look them in the eye, briefly shake their hand with a moderate grip (2-3 times) then let go. From Flannery:

“As you’re shaking the person’s hand, make eye contact. Not soul-piercing eye contact and not I’m-really-looking-at-your-forehead eye contact. Just look them in the eyes, smile if you feel like smiling, and greet them with a salutation and your full name. “Hi, I’m Katherine Flannery. It’s great to meet you.” Release their hand, relax your gaze from their eyes to look at their face generally, and you’ve just made a really nice introduction.”

2. Great greetings. When greeting people Flannery suggests categorizing them into three groups; close friends, acquaintances (work or personal), and executives – a category that includes your boss and bank manager. Your friends group is up to you; hugs, hand-shakes, or fist bumps – whatever is the norm for your urban tribe.

“For casual friends and acquaintances, greet them with eye contact, a warm smile, and a salutation (hello, good morning, etc). Avoid the awkward “do we hug?” dance by sticking out your hand for a shake. You might be thinking, ‘Really? A handshake? Is that a little weird?’ Nope. If you do it with confidence, it won’t be awkward. Then ask how they are doing. When greeting people in passing at work, a salutation – “Good morning, [name here]. How are you?” – with a smile, eye contact, and a nod is always a good idea for any co-worker, be they the CEO or the mail clerk.”

If you can’t remember their name it’s okay to ask “I’m sorry, but can you please remind me of your name?” If you’re in a rush it’s good to be frank and say “It’s great seeing you, but unfortunately I’m on my way to an appointment.” When using names – the more formal the relationship, the more formal the name (i.e. the CEO is Mrs Flannery, not Kate), unless they’ve invited you to use their first or nickname. Other tips from Flannery:

  • Compliment people where appropriate without overdoing it.

  • Practice good posture.

  • Don’t ask personal questions unless invited (this is the opposite of over-sharing).

  • Definitely don’t curse unless it is with your urban tribe and is a norm.

  • Don’t show up late.

  • Don’t engage in gossip.

3. Conversing with style. Flannery says having good conversation isn’t hard or scary, just based on a few simple principles and a little pre-planning. First, follow the guidance above (e.g. pay attention, don’t look for more interesting people to talk to). Second, prepare some small talk related to the event. For the office it might be a new movie, sports event, or something at work. For private life it could be a friends achievement (marathon, award) or event (birthday, engagement). More from Flannery:

“If you really want to get a conversation going, there’s no better way to do that than by asking people about themselves. Politely, of course, and don’t get too personal – no one wants to be interrogated, especially about a personal issue, but everyone wants to talk about the things they love. Start with the easy stuff, such as “What do you do for a living?” Or, for coworkers, “What is your role in the company?” You can ask someone if they have a hobby or what they favorite show is at the moment.”

Choose linked follow up questions. If their hobby is trail walking, follow up questions can include ‘who do you go with?’, ‘what do you take?’ ‘where do you walk?’, ‘when are you going next?’, ‘why did you pick that hobby?’, or ‘how long to you go for?’ See how these questions are open questions starting with who, what, where, when, why, or how? It’s easy.

Here’s a further suggestion I’ve picked related to this topic. If someone is going to great lengths to talk to you by asking well targeted who/what/where/when/why/how questions, then be sure to reciprocate with questions in return. If you just answer questions without ever returning the favor then you come across as a self-centered narcissist.

Key insight 3: Succeed in the office

1. Be on time, don’t waste other peoples’ time. Being late is bad etiquette – it screams “I don’t care enough about you to not waste your time.” This is especially true for some personality styles that are especially time focused. Whenever you have an appointment – be it work or play – plan to arrive early so you can consistently be on time. If sh!t happens and you’re going to be late let people know early with a simple message not the full blow-by-blow description of what happened. More from Flannery:

“No one cares, and worse than that, it might make you seem like you’re over compensating and maybe not telling the truth. Just stick with the basics. “I’m so sorry, but I’m going to be late. There was trouble with my subway line.” Or if you have a more personal delay, just go with “I’m sorry, I had a person (or family) issue come up, and I will be late this morning.” Do your best to estimate when you will arrive, and then add in a little buffer time on top of that.”

The related topic is not wasting peoples’ time. If your choosing a restaurant and have vegan friends don’t chose a carnivore only restaurant – you’ll need to discuss alternatives on the fly, make new bookings, and travel to a new place. This is irritating for all. In the workplace, if you’re attending a meeting prepare to the extent necessary. This will avoid 10 people looking at you awkwardly when you’re the only one who hasn’t pre-read the materials and the meeting needs to be rescheduled.

Lastly, if you are the one calling the meeting, make sure it is for a valid reason (i.e. not a talk-fest), you have thought out the agenda, have sent pre-reading materials as appropriate, and the IT system works for your presentation if you’re using it. Again this avoids folks questioning your competence when you’re meeting falls apart for some easily avoidable reason.

2. Your boss is not your BFF. A few principles guide this issue. First, follow-the-leader. If the boss wants to be on a first-name basis and discuss their weekend then match this at the level of detail they go into – nevermore. Second, they go first; in meetings, they talk first and are allowed to interrupt you. The boss sets the tone in almost all things from dress style, to approved topics to talk about, and so on. Third, assume they are not your BFF so don’t share personal details even if asked. You never know what will happen. Lastly, respect the role they have as a boss in achieving unit performance and evaluating everyone. Flannery summarizes this issue well:

“Since offices are a lot more casual than they used to be, your boss may joke around with you, and you may end up swapping stories about your personal life. This can make your relationship feel like a friendship. But at the end of the workday, your boss is an authority figure. It’s her job to evaluate your performance and help you achieve your career goals – that’s not something friends typically do. If you keep this in mind, you can have a great friendly relationship without mistaking your boss for your BFF.”

3. Workplace gossip – danger ahead. Like being late and not respecting peoples time, gossip is the opposite of good etiquette. It’s also an activity with mostly downside risk; if nothing happens little is gained, you were already close to the person you shared the story with. However, when gossiping goes wrong and folks get upset – it can go horribly wrong. Why risk it. Flannery on gossip:

“What’s the difference between sharing an anecdote involving other people and gossiping? In the former, you’re telling a story you know to be true that you would have no problem telling in front of the people in it. Gossiping, on the other hand, is relaying rumors or even true stores about someone that are fairly personal or at least not things that you would ever say in front of that person. Imaging that person is right next to you as you are telling your story; would you be embarrassed if they overheard you? If the answer is yes, don’t gossip.”

Other insights from 50 Essential Etiquette Lessons

4. Mastering meetings. Show up on time, fed and having visited the restroom if needed. Prepare in advance by reading materials and/or preparing talking points as appropriate. I use a workplace journal to do this. Pay attention even if you’re not an active participant – you never know when a speaker asks your opinion. Don’t bring your phone, take notes to stay awake if you must. Use strong alert body language, and don’t eat unless it is a catered meeting.

5. Concise communications. Decide in advance if what is required is lots of detail or the executive summary; then produce that. Note, people have different communication styles so you may need to provide more or less detail to suit their needs. In team meetings communicate on issues that impact everyone (i.e. take 1-1 discussion out of the room). As always be respectful and considerate.

6. Table manners. You may be surprised to know that manners matter, to some folks – a lot. First, no phones. Next, no elbows on the table, eating with mouth open or talking while eating (guests shouldn’t see your food being crewed). Place the napkin in your lap, eat slowly, hold wine glasses by the stem, bring food to your mouth, not the reverse, break not cut bread, pass shared plates counterclockwise, say you like the food regardless of the truth, and excuse yourself from the table if you need to leave but return quickly.

7. Mingling and networking. Start with the above regards handshakes, greetings, and conversation. Have an opening one or two questions planned, “Is this your first time at the conference?”, or “Do you know the bride or groom?” Have your personal and professional ‘elevator pitch’ pre-planned to respond to their question. Keep the conversation going with who/what/where/when/why/how questions. Move on from people who don’t reciprocate in asking you questions about yourself.

8. Dating coworkers. First, don’t date the boss. Take things very slowly to give you off-ramps in case it goes bad – imagine working across the office from your worst ever ex-partner. Check your companies dating policies – these are becoming more restrictive. Tell your supervisor if things get serious with someone before the grapevine does. Keep it professional in the office – no supply closet antics. See notes on gossip above.

9. Thank you notes. No these are not old-fashioned, they are etiquette on steroids! For small gifts, an email or text can suffice. If people have gone to the effort (travel to be with you or expensive gifts) then a hand-written letter is best. Personalize the note, a generic “Thank you for the gift’ isn’t as nice as “We will really enjoy the red wine glasses at the end of a busy week!” If the gift was money or vouchers, say what you have or will spend it on.

10. Dealing with other people’s breakups. Listen and be there for your friend in the ex-relationship. You don’t need to agree, and don’t be forward in offering opinions – be Oprah Winfrey, not the Fixit Man. Don’t gossip – it’s your friend’s news to share as they see fit. If you are friends with both sides you’ll need to make clear that you’re not taking sides, are staying friends with both, and won’t share news of the other. Be respectful and considerate.

Why you should read this book if you’re under 30

Having and using etiquette is a way of showing those you interact with that you value their time and presence and you have the utmost respect and consideration for them. And they will feel it and return respect and consideration to you. It powers personal and professional relationships. Avoiding people with poor etiquette is a way of avoiding people who lack respect and consideration for others – not a bad idea. Knowledge of etiquette reduces the stress associated with new situations such as a formal team lunch with the boss and his boss. Understanding and having good etiquette is a key part of living your best life.

Relationship to other Eruditeable books

#3 – Atomic Habits. If you’re looking to make habits out of etiquette changes in your life then this book can help.

#4 – The Defining Decade. This book encourages 20 somethings to make the most of their 20s to set up their 30s, 40s and 50s for success. If you intend to learn etiquette in your life might as well do it early to enjoy the benefits that follow in your life.

#13 – 12 Rules for Life. If you’re looking to take personal improvement to the next level, this book is a must.

#19 – Gifts Differing. This book will help you understand peoples’ personality differences. Why some people are always late or on time, why some want all the details and others the executive summary, and why some people get upset easily and others not at all.

#21 – Leaders Eat Last. If you’re in a leadership position then etiquette matters even more. Understanding how to be a great leader will be important and this book can help.

Book resources

About the author

Katherine Flannery is the author of several books, including A Kids; Guide to Manners: 50 Fun Etiquette Lessons for Kids and Their Families and Express Yourself: The One-Year Journal for Girls. She is the editorial director of the publishing services company Tandem Books.

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